riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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A Mother’s Will to Live

Yesterday (March 18) was my mother’s birthday. She would have been 78 years old. She died at age 56. My mother had been seriously ill at different points in my childhood, so I had contemplated her death many times, beginning at 5 years old when she needed her first open heart surgery. Not that I understood what “death” meant at that age, but I was aware of the possibility that she might not come home.

Somehow though, miraculously it seemed, she did come home… over and over, after every operation. By the time I was 22, my mother had beat the odds so many times, to my young mind she seemed almost invincible, like a frail old tree that has managed to survive multiple natural disasters.

For this reason, despite her history of bad health, it was a shock when one day three weeks after my 22nd birthday, she collapsed in front of a neighbor’s house while walking the dog. Two hours later my brother broke the news, and I too collapsed (he caught me). It felt as if the entire world had been yanked out from under my feet.

My mother was the anchor and center of our family, the one person my siblings and I knew we could always turn to and rely on, a constant and unwavering source of unconditional love. She was an artist, music lover and world traveler.  She went back to college in her mid-40’s to finish the degree she had abandoned when my parents married. She finally learned how to drive after they split up twenty-five years later. In the year before she died, she and a high school girlfriend did a European road trip, visiting Switzerland, Italy and Germany. She also visited New Orleans for the first time, and returned saying she could move “in a heartbeat” to either New Orleans or Florence, Italy.

She spoke English, Hebrew and German fluently, the latter only with older relatives. It always surprised me to hear her laughing with her aunts, or saying something under her breath to her brother, in German. She once told me that she liked writing poetry in English more than Hebrew (her native tongue) because English had so many more words to choose from. She loved movies, literature and laughter. A few of her favorite authors were Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, James Baldwin and Somerset Maugham.

She was beautiful: rosy cheeks, jet-black hair (later, salt & pepper) and deep blue eyes framed by beautifully arched eyebrows. Her only regular beauty regiment was applying face cream and plucking her brows. She never wore a stitch of make-up, and she never died her hair. She was opinionated, but also fair-minded and wise. My older siblings and their friends would often seek her counsel. Me being the youngest and barely out of the rebellious teenage years, seeking her counsel (and listening to it) was still relatively new. We were just beginning to make the transition from the traditional mother/daughter hierarchy to adult(ish) friends when she died.

As cliche as it sounds, there was something special about my mother. She once found a shiny bauble on a Tel-Aviv sidewalk, only to find out that it was a diamond worth over a thousand dollars. The boyfriend of a friend, upon meeting my mother for the first time, gave her the crystal necklace he was wearing off his neck. His girlfriend urged her to accept. Strangers, children and animals were all drawn to her.

Hours before she collapsed, she had received, separately and completely by coincidence, wonderful news from both of my siblings, news that she had been waiting years to hear. My last conversation with her was a bit more tense (something I still regret), but we did speak about the college film I was directing, and I knew she was proud of me. My siblings and I have a theory that, with all the good news she heard that morning, she might have died of happiness.

We never asked for an autopsy because we felt like her body had been through enough, but her doctors had their theories. They also revealed their genuine surprise that she had lived as long as she did. These men of science credited her will to live as the reason. 

Physically frail but iron-willed, she left her mark on the world.

My mother and me

My mother and me


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Love Life (Photo)

image

Just found this photo from two years ago when I did the Brain Tumor Walk in Orange County, CA, in honor of Kaz and others. We walked 5K and raised thousands of dollars for brain tumor research. It was an inspiring day with lots of shared stories, embraces and tears. There were also lots of signs. This one was my favorite.


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Sweet Dreams

People have varying opinions on the origins and meanings of dreams. This post isn’t meant to be a discussion of either, rather an observation on the emotional power dreams can carry. For those of us who have lost loved ones, it can be quite an experience to encounter the person(s) in our dreams. It can feel as if the person has just “visited” or like they’re trying to tell us something. In some cases, it can feel mysterious, jolting, even upsetting.

For years after my mother died, whenever I would see her in my dreams she ignored me – the opposite of how she behaved in life. She had always been the emotional anchor of our family. After my parents split up and my father moved away, in many respects she became the center of my world. Yet, to this day, she has never spoken to me in my dreams. 

The last time I dreamt of her, she was the special guest at a party and when she entered the room, everyone applauded. I felt thrilled, curious and proud to see her looking so beautiful and radiantly happy, almost like a movie star. Of course I still wish one day she would look at me or say something (what I wouldn’t give for a hug), but I have learned to simply be grateful in her presence and respect her independence, for in my dreams she always comes across as a strong, independent woman, comfortable in her own skin and not defined by motherhood.

With Kaz it’s been different. For one, I have dreamt of him more often in the past two years than I have dreamt of my mother in the past twenty. Second, we do interact in my dreams, both physically and verbally. Some of my dreams have been “R” rated. Some have been upsetting, others odd, but most have been good.

In the first few months after he passed, we were definitely still a married couple in my dreams. His body was healthy and strong, the way it had been when we first met and, though we never discussed it, there was a shared awareness that he had been sick and was no longer alive in my waking life.  The combination of these elements gave those early dreams a heightened sense of urgency, like “these few moments are all we have, let’s make them good!” 

After a while, the nature of our relationship in my dreams changed, as if he was evolving with time, or I was, or both. Once I dreamt that he was living with another woman. I felt happy to see him again, especially looking so happy and healthy, but found it difficult to contain my jealousy. That dream ended with me leaving to take a walk around the block because I couldn’t take seeing them together anymore (and pretending to be okay with it).

Last night I dreamt of him again. I only remember the end. We had just finished having dinner with a bunch of friends in a strange city, perhaps Europe, and Kaz had to leave. He walked towards a waiting vehicle, like a van or small SUV. I actually felt shy about following him. Were we still together? Was I still his wife? What was I to him now?  

I finally did follow him, and he turned around to hug me. “I’ll see you later,” he said and smiled. Then he got into the back of the vehicle, and it drove way. My questions hadn’t been answered, but I felt elated and woke up laughing, “I just saw Kaz!”

No matter what the situation, any time I see him (or my mother) in a dream, it always feels like a gift.


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Two Years

In honor of Kaz’s passing two years ago May 3, 2011, and since I won’t be online tomorrow, I’m reposting Mountaintop, copied below. One love.

— — —

As I continue to heal from a state of heartbrokenness, I am reminded of the phrase stated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last speech: I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

In the context of my life this phrase means, I have known, loved, and been loved by a Good Man.

I lost this man 3 years into our relationship (before we had worked all the kinks out), 11 days after our wedding, to a horrible disease which, coupled with a devastating motorcycle accident, was simply too much to overcome.

Shortly after he passed a girlfriend said to me, “Well, at least you’ve known love.” At the time, the pain was still so fresh I couldn’t find much relief in those words. But even on my darkest days I knew on some instinctual level that she was right.

I had experienced something few people do in a lifetime, the kind of love that makes you walk on hot coals to try and save the other, the kind of love that you read about in novels, the kind of love that makes you write love letters for a year after the other dies.

For a long time, and a variety of reasons, I didn’t always feel that I deserved this love. There had been moments when I doubted or disrespected it due to immaturity and insecurity. Just as the relationship was hitting its stride, he got diagnosed with a terminal illness and everything changed overnight. As things progressed at a deliriously fast pace, a part of me began to awaken, while another part began to shut down in order for the rest of me to keep functioning.

Once he was gone, I had a volcanic eruption of heartbreak and guilt, not uncommon for the surviving spouse/caregiver/less-than-perfect partner. Though my husband had forgiven my shortcomings, I found it difficult to forgive myself. Every time I thought of a good memory, a painful one reared up in front of it, like an eclipse blocking out the sun. It took every ounce of strength to not follow him to the other side.

Another friend told me, “Just hang in there and keep breathing.” Others reassured me that one day I would feel more grateful than devastated, more happy than sad. I couldn’t imagine it, but I also didn’t give up.  He never did and wouldn’t want me to.

Now it’s been 1 year, 6 months and 9 days since I watched him take his last breath, and I can say with cautious optimism that things are better.

I am still heartbroken. I still cry. I still talk to him, write to him, ache and reach out for him. But instead of feeling like my soul has been crushed, it more often feels lifted. Instead of dwelling on all that was lost, I think more often on how to rebuild. Instead of feeling guilty for not knowing better then, I focus on being better now.

Part of this transformation is simply Time. Part of it is all the writing and healing-work I’ve been doing this past year and a half. Part of it is the continued love and support of my family and all of our friends. Part of it is Ruby, my new puppy, who literally re-awakens and strengthens my heart every day.

So, I have been to the mountaintop. And I have seen the Promised Land. I couldn’t get there with my husband, but I have looked over and know that it exists. And in the knowing is the transformation.

Obama inauguration party 1/20/09

Wedding day 4/22/11


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The Ties That Bind

Well, that was exciting. In the past 24 hours the blog has had over 1400 views, almost 100 new comments, close to 80 new followers, all from 20 different countries. I am humbled, grateful and slightly overwhelmed to say the least. Besides being a boost of confidence, these numbers feel like a cosmic reminder, of sorts, that Grief and its sister Love strike a universal chord. I am stating the obvious, of course, but for a reason.

All my life I have been drawn to work which encourages a feeling of universality, of oneness. This is why I fell in love with cinema, because of its ability to bring people together. Movies, music, literature, paintings, the arts in general, all have this ability to make us feel and experience something deeper than our differences. In the past few years, I’ve struggled to regain that inspiration and motivation, but the past 24 hours helped.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by, especially those who left comments. While I’m sorry that we have to deal with loss, it is a part of life as they say. We may come to experience it in different ways and from different perspectives, but the underlying theme is that people everywhere, regardless of race, religion, nationality, politics, sexual orientation, etc., have experienced love and loss on some level. We might not speak the same language or have anything in common, but on these very deep and personal matters we can relate to one another.

My last thought on the Freshly Pressed experience is actually a sentence I once used at the end of a movie trailer: Sometiemes the ties of humanity can bind even the worst of enemies.

Tomorrow it’s back to Industry Friday and thoughts on television writing.


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10 Steps to a Happier Place

To make up for yesterday’s 10-bullet-points-of-kvetching post, for which I apologize to the readers and The Universe, here are 10 common sense reminders (in no particular order) of what to do when you’re down. And by you, I mean us.

1. Get Some Rest – If this means going to bed earlier, taking a nap during the day, sleeping in your car or under your desk at lunch (been there!), or asking your partner to let you sleep an extra 15 minutes, do it. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you’ve had enough sleep. Yesterday was a prime example of what happens when I’m tired. I get cranky, bitchy, whiny.

2. Have Fewer (Unrealistic) Expectations – If you’re a working adult with multiple responsibilities, if you’re a single mom (if you’re single, period), if you’re grieving, sick, or healthy and simply overwhelmed, if you’re human, then you know there are only so many hours in a day, and you have only so much energy. Be realistic. Make your To Do list as long as you want (mine is pages long) but realize you will not get to everything at once. You will get to what you can. And that’s okay.

3. Be Easy on Yourself – Do you beat yourself up about all the things you do wrong? Or the things you didn’t do, rather than the things you did? Do you compare yourselves to others and wonder what’s wrong with you that you can’t accomplish the same? Stop! This is useless energy that doesn’t help you or anyone who has to deal with you. Every person is different. No person is perfect. If it takes you longer to reach your goals than others, this doesn’t mean you’re a lazy bum. It means you’re human. And you’ll get a whole lot more done if you redirect the negative energy towards something positive.

4. Be Grateful – I know it’s a cliche, but some cliches are good and this is one of them. Even in our darkest moments, we can find something that will make us smile, if only for a brief moment. The sound of children’s laughter, the rainbow the sprinkler makes in the morning sun, the breeze in our hair, a song. Maybe it’s simply looking around and recognizing what we have instead of what we don’t, the blessings in our life instead of the curses. Again, I know this is harder said than done sometimes, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Even the unlucky are lucky in some way. The challenge is figuring out how.

5. Focus on Yourself – Not in a narcissistic way, but in a don’t-worry-about-what-he-or-she’s-doing way. Focus on yourself. The only thing on this earth that you can control is you.

6. Take Your Vitamins – Eat well, drink water, get up and move around every now and then, and yes, take your vitamins. Besides being a healthy (and these days, necessary) supplement, they can actually improve your mood and energy level. I had skipped my vitamins the last few days but this morning I took them and no lie, I feel better.

7. Be Friendly – Say hello to people that pass you by. Say please and thank you. Tip your servers. Give someone a compliment. Hold the door for a stranger. Let other cars pass in front of you. I don’t mean be fake, but little gestures of genuine kindness can make a world of difference to others and to you.

8. Watch Bad Television – Whatever constitutes “bad television” to you, sometimes it’s okay to indulge in it. Personally, I consider reality TV bad. But I admit to watching a few shows. Project Runway is my favorite. But I will sometimes leave American Idol on in the background while I’m doing other things. And more recently, I’ve been watching The Face, which is a combination of America’s Next Top Model and The Voice. Totally ridiculous but Naomi Campbell is one diva beyotch and thoroughly entertaining.

9. Help Someone – Helping others is good for them, good for you, good for the world. It can also add a sense of meaning to your life. You can never go wrong.

10. Think Happy Thoughts – I’ve always been a moody person and my mother used to say this to me a lot when I was a kid. My late husband used to say the same thing, in his own way. I couldn’t always manage it as a child or an adult, but I try and I think it’s good advice.

peace pic


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A Warm Hello to You From California

One of my favorite sunsets,  late May 2011. the whole city lit up. #losangeles #clouds #sky #sunset #california

Took this pic three weeks after K passed away, late May 2011, from the spot where we got married at Griffith Observatory. It took my breath away then, and still takes my breath away today. I thought I would share it here with you. Can you feel the warmth?


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Valentine’s Memory

Since it’s Valentine’s Day in a few hours, I thought I’d share a favorite memory with my late husband. This is also an expert from the current draft of my book. Happy Valentine’s day to you and yours.

February 13-15, 2009
For our first official Valentine’s Day, at my suggestion, we go camping in Joshua Tree National Park even though I’ve never been camping before. Since it’s my idea and I’ve organized the whole trip, I’m the only one who receives the instructions for the tent. Once we arrive and unpack, Kaz watches me circle the tarp a few times.

“You okay?” he asks.
“Yup.” I turn my back to him and silently bite my lip. I have no idea what I’m doing. Why did I even suggest a camping trip? What will happen if I can’t remember the instructions?
“Why don’t you try telling me how it’s supposed to go?” I hear him say gently behind me. “It might help you remember.”
“Okay.”

I start talking out loud, and he’s right. The instructions slowly come back to me. I begin to place certain pegs in certain holes, then bend the tent’s spine and stretch the fabric. We finish pitching it together, after which I’m practically giddy with relief and gratitude.

We celebrate by going for a walk in a nearby field of rocks. “Have you ever been here before?” I ask. “Yes, with my ex,” he answers. I nod and look down at the ground. He puts an arm around my shoulder. “But I’m very happy to be here again with you.”

We take a series of pictures. In one, he stands on a boulder, his hands spread wide, his feet straddling a large crevice running up the middle.

“Because he’s a crack man!” I yell as I take it.

As we walk back, he picks up a long, straight branch, which we immediately dub his Moses stick.

After dinner, which I manage to make without utensils (because I forgot those too), we sit in our borrowed camping chairs by the fire and pass a flask of Jack Daniels back and forth. Other than the fire, our entertainment is the star-filled sky and a small transistor radio which doubles as a flashlight (a Christmas gift from his mother). Tonight the only channel we can get clearly is a classical one with a DJ who speaks in Japanese.

We talk about our families again. I tell him how my mother was an artist and did art throughout her life, even when she was sick. That she loved music, especially jazz and reggae, and she spoke in a whisper due to multiple tracheotomies and open heart surgeries. I describe to him the moment my brother informed me of her death, 17 years prior. “It was and still is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me.”

In the flickering light of our campfire, Kaz tells me the closest he can relate is losing his paternal grandmother, who had helped raise him as a child. He describes the vegetable garden in the back of her house, the strawberry patch where he used to help her pick strawberries. He had been very fond of her.

“By the way, you can never go wrong making me something with strawberries in it, or berries in general,” he adds.
“Noted,” I laugh.

Later, he points out a couple of constellations and explains that because of the time it takes for the light to travel from the stars to us, some of the stars might actually be dead planets.
I look up at the sky. “That’s disappointing.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble,” he chuckles.
“You haven’t. I choose to believe the stars I’m looking at are alive,” I smirk. He laughs.

The next day, we visit Skull Rock where, to our surprise, it’s snowing. When he discovers both the heat and defrost don’t work in my car, we have a mini-spat, later to be referred to as Incident at Skull Rock.

We quickly take pictures before hurrying back to my car, where he jumps behind the wheel. A few miles and minutes away, we’re in the low desert and it’s sunny and warm.

“Oh my G-d,” I squeal. “Look at that!” I point over his left shoulder at a full rainbow arched over the plain, end to end, like something out of a movie. “Can we stop to take pictures, pleeease?” I plead. He pulls over and I jump out to photograph the rainbow, which, coupled with the fact that it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, feels like a divine symbol of love and hope.

View from the tent

View from the tent

Kaz and the crack

Kaz and the crack

Skull Rock in the snow

Skull Rock in the snow

the rainbow

the rainbow


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Looking Back

The end of the year is traditionally a time of reflection. I gave up on making “resolutions” a long time ago but I do believe in acknowledging the accomplishments of the past year, and setting goals for the New Year.

Last year around this time, I wrote some general goals on a bunch of 3×5 index cards and pinned them to the bulletin board in my home office. When I packed for the writer residency, I looked up at these cards and thought, “Wow, I actually did what I set out to do.” In truth, I did more than what was on those cards.

In 2012, I…

– Survived the first year of grief, including the anniversary of K’s seizures, hospice, our wedding and his passing.

– Took a Caribbean dance class, stepping waaaayyyy out of my comfort zone to learn traditional dances from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Cuba, Belize and Puerto Rico.

– Wrote my first book and gave it to my mentor, closest family and friends for feedback.

– Went to my first ever writer’s conference (the first professional event since K’s passing) and pitched my book to strangers and agents, in addition to learning a heck of a lot.

– Applied to at least a dozen writer residencies and competitions, got rejected by most, accepted to one, and still waiting to hear on a couple of others.

– Learned how to ride a motorcycle and took my first ride on the streets of LA.

– “Faux quit” my job (i.e. expressed the desire to but didn’t formally quit because I realized it was a mistake).

– Started this blog.

– Adopted a puppy.

– Started writing a television pilot.

– Got a leave of absence from my job in order to attend Vermont writer’s residency.

– Sent out all the Thank You cards to people who helped me and K that I didn’t have energy to send out last year.

I did all of these things despite many tears, fears and doubts. And if I can do it, you can do it too.

To those of you still in the tightest grip of grief, I encourage you to keep processing, expressing and feeling your feelings. But please don’t give up on life. Your loved one would want you to keep going, keep pursuing your dreams and aspirations, and he/she is rooting for you to succeed.

For me personally, I feel almost an obligation to live the life my husband wanted for me, to do the things he can no longer do, things we talked about but can no longer experience together (in a physical sense). I am inspired by him every day to keep trying and to not give up. It’s been challenging to say the least, but his love and strength of character carries me through.

Tomorrow, I’ll write my goals for 2013.


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Mother-in-Law

Last night I had a great conversation with Kaz’s mother, whom I still call my mother-in-law even though I’m a widow. She’s a lovely woman, intelligent, gentle and sweet, a former social worker who used to work with teenagers in the D.C. school system. We had met only once before Kaz got sick, but saw more of each other during the year of his illness. She helped me take care of him in the very end, and we were together when he passed away (she on one side of the bed, me on the other).

Though it was a sad and stressful time, the experience bonded us. Kaz used to tell us (together and individually) that he wanted us to keep in touch after he was gone. “It means the world to me that the two of you get along,” he would say. Privately, I promised him that I would look after her since he wouldn’t be able to. He was her only child and she was getting older.

Anyway, last night, when I was sharing with her the Vermont saga, she reminded me of a moment we shared with him the week before he went on hospice. We were having lunch in the hospital restaurant, talking about movies and television. Kaz told his Mom that I had worked in many areas: directing, writing, producing, editing. On a whim I asked him, “So, what do you think I should focus on the most?”

He thought about it a moment. “Well, I know what a control freak you are,” he said. “And the best way to have the most control is to write. I think you should focus on writing. That way you can control everything.”

“He knew how talented you are,” his Mom told me last night. “And he believed in you. So I think you’re doing exactly the right thing. You’re following your passion and dreams, and that’s exactly what he would have wanted you to do.”

Sometimes I feel like our shared experience helps keep him alive in some way. She knew him one way. I knew him in another way. Together, we remind each other of who he was, who he became, how he grew, what he believed in, what he liked and what he didn’t.

The irony is that she lost her son but gained a daughter-in-law… and I, who lost my mother 20 years ago, gained a mother-in-law. I think Kaz saw this before we did. He always had a certain wisdom, as if he could see farther down the road than the rest of us.